Flanders Field Memorial

Flanders Field Memorial

April 22 – May 25, 1915: Second Battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres in World War I, which dragged on for four weeks, culminated in 69,000 dead among the Allies (Canadians, British, French) and  35,000 among the Germans. The battle is most famous as the site of the first use by the Germans of a new chemical weapon, chlorine gas. Wafted toward the Allies as  a low-lying, yellowish-green cloud, it caused asphyxiation - a relatively quick but horrible death.

Lt.-Col. Edward Morrison, a Canadian officer at Ypres (in the area of Belgium once known as Flanders), recalled:

My headquarters were in a trench on the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank. During periods in the battle men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into his dressing station. Along from us a few hundred yards was the headquarters of a regiment, and many times during the sixteen days of battle, he and I watched them burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row, grew into a good-sized cemetery. Just as he describes, we often heard in the mornings the larks singing high in the air, between the crash of the shell and the reports of the guns in the battery just beside us.

“John” in Morrison's account is John McCrae, surgeon with the 1st Brigade of Canadian Field Artillery. An experienced physician and an army man for 20-odd years, 43-year-old McCrae was appalled by Ypres, describing it in a letter home as “seventeen days of Hades.” When the battle had raged for more than two weeks, McCrae saw a young friend and former student killed in battle. In the absence of a chaplain he recited part of the funeral service by memory over the friend’s grave, in utter darkness to avoid German fire. Soon after, while awaiting the arrival of yet more casualties, McCrae spent 20 minutes composing a poem that became one of the most popular of World War I. In it, the thousands who died near Ypres warn their comrades to continue the fight, so they will not have died in vain:

"In Flanders Field"

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

     In a letter to Morrison, McCrae recalled that he composed this poem partly as an exercise in meter. (It's an unusual form, 13 lines in iambic tetrameter and 2 lines of 2 iambics each.) If you’ve ever tried to wrestle an intense emotion into the confines of strict meter, you’ll appreciate how distracting, and how much of a relief, such an intellectual exercise can be.

The poppy image is particularly apt. Poppies, which thrive in areas where the ground is churned up and no other vegetation survives – e.g., a battlefield – have for millennia been a symbol of sleep, because the seeds of some varieties produce opium and morphine. If their cause is betrayed, warn McCrae’s soldiers, they won’t rest despite all the soporific flowers growing on their graves. In the Flanders Field Memorial, an anonymous doughboy looks pensively at a bunch of poppies in his hand.

Appropriately, the statue is in the western fringes of what used to be known as “Hell’s Kitchen,” now politely known as Clinton. When I first wrote this page several years ago, the renovation of the area initiated by the building of Worldwide Plaza on Eighth Avenue at 50th St. had not reached Eleventh Avenue yet: it was a place you wouldn’t venture unless you were looking to buy cars, or perhaps illegal substances.  Unless you know for certain that it's changed, go with a friend, go in a taxi, and go in the daytime.

Cross References and further reading